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Last weekend I attended a 2-day SIOP professional development class, focusing on vocabulary and language comprehension strategies. SIOP stands for Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, and is a method of providing instruction for students learning English. SIOP focuses 30 “features” spread across 8 different areas of instruction – things like defining language and content objectives, providing rich supplemental materials, and explicitly teaching learning strategies. The class was focused on teaching, but I was able to glean some good ideas for language therapy. After all, my students are also struggling with understanding language, though for different reasons than a student who is learning another language. And some of my students are struggling both with learning a new language, AND with a language disability! I am glad I went.

The main book that we used for the day we spent learning about strategies was “99 Ideas and Activities for Teaching English Learners with The SIOP Model“. Again, the book is focused on general education classroom instruction, but the chapter on strategies contained some true gems for me. I realized that, while I am continually working on language comprehension from text with my students, I have not been giving them enough instruction on how to become independent in comprehending, even when they still struggle to understand. SIOP reminded me that students need to be explicitly taught language comprehension strategies, and given practice in using them independently.

Learning strategy vs. Teaching technique

SIOP is very clear about the difference between a strategy and a technique. A strategy is something a learner uses to enhance their own learning. A technique is something the teacher does to support student learning. I use techniques constantly to support my students. I scaffold, provide cloze-sentences, give word-finding clues, provide context, use visuals, explain new vocabulary, and break longer passages down into small chunks.

A strategy is something a student does to help themselves learn. Using a graphic organizer, identifying unfamiliar words, using wh-questions, different ways to summarize… these are all student-based strategies. I realized during the class that I usually just do these things for my students (teaching technique), rather than teaching them how to do it themselves (learning strategy).

My take-home from the class was to teach strategies more explicitly and intentionally. The first thing I needed to do was to figure out which strategies to target. The 99 Ideas book has an entire chapter listing different learning strategies, so I went through and found the ones most focused on language comprehension. I also wrote down additional language comprehension strategies that were not in the book, but that I have used with students before.

Language Comprehension Strategies

To transfer accountability to students to use the strategies, I made an anchor chart for each strategy. Last week in each of my language groups I introduced one of the strategies. The strategy I taught depended on which grade-level text I was using with the group. We first talked about the strategy, and then practiced using it to organize/understand the passage of the day. For example, I used a Comic Book Summary with my 6th grade group. We were using a historical passage about the invention of the Eskimo Pie, so the drawing element fit great! After creating our comic book summary, my students were able to retell the story using just the visuals, with no cues from me. Success!

I have uploaded the anchor charts up on Teachers Pay Teachers (FREE DOWNLOAD), if you would like to use them in your language therapy, or with your child at home. Enjoy!

One challenge in a public school system is working with students whose home language is different than mine. Many of my students are learning English as their second or third language. For students who have a communication disorder, it is important to recognize that their difficulties will exist in both languages.

One of my students who is working on the L sound comes from a Spanish-speaking home. Using Boardmaker, I’ve been able to create personalized speech practice sheets with both Spanish and English words! (Boardmaker has multiple language options, so this is pretty easy).

The coolest part is that I was able to find words that began with the L sound in both Spanish AND English, so he can practice the same skill in English at school, and in Spanish at home!

lips = labios!

lobster = langosta!

I feel pretty brilliant today. 🙂

Here is a link to one of my practice pages.

This month I have evaluated several students to determine whether they have a “language disability.”

A language disability describes difficulty using or understanding language. For example, a child who has a hard time using complete sentences, or who doesn’t understand what to do when an adult gives them a direction to follow, might have a language disability. It’s like a learning disability, but specifically talking about language understanding and use.

The interesting thing about the students I evaluated this month is that all of them speak Spanish at home, so English is their second (or third?) language. This makes the evaluation tricky, because learning English as a second language is a normal process and NOT a disability! However, it can mimic what a language disability looks like. Difficulty following directions? check. Can’t use complete sentences? check.

How can we tell the difference between a student who can’t speak well in English because they are still learning it, and a student with a language disability?

The simple answer: the difficulty will exist in both languages.

If a student has normal language development in their first language (Spanish, in this case), then we expect that they will learn to speak English following a normal learning process. If a student has difficulty learning their first language, then they will probably have difficulty learning a new language also. This is easier said than measured, though. Every student learns at a different rate, and when a student is in the middle of learning English they sometimes start regressing in their first language and can look like they don’t have strong skills in either.

How do I test for that?

I use interpreters in the child’s primary language to help me. A good interpreter is invaluable! They talk with the student in their home language, and can tell me whether the student is using normal grammar, expected vocabulary, conjugating verbs, leaving out words, etc. They also help me give language tests that have been designed to use on bilingual children, so we can measure the student’s language abilities more objectively. I usually have the student look at a wordless picture book and make up a story to go with it, to get a sense of their storytelling and how comfortable they are speaking.

I also ask their parents about language at home. What language do they speak with their parents? with siblings and friends? Did they start talking about the same time as other children? How quickly do they learn new words? The ELL teacher can also give me lots of great information. Is the student progressing as quickly as other students learning English, or are they slower?

My four students this month all came out as being kids with normal language skills who are learning English. Good thing I checked!